You are on page 1of 22

Culture, Rights, Indigeneity and Intervention: Addressing Inequality in

Indigenous Heritage Protection and Control 1

George P. Nicholas

The questions of who is indigenous and whether that status offers any special
rights within heritage claims beyond those of other members of the nation are of
considerable importance today. As others have noted, the term itself
indigenous is also problematic, as it is necessarily defined in relation to
something (someone) else. Some also challenge the term, pointing out that
everyone is indigenous to somewhere. Indigeneity has thus become a focus of
scrutiny (e.g., Devey et al. 2009; Hokowhitu et al. 2010; Miller 2003).
Making sense of indigeneity and the power relations it includes or obscures is a
task of some urgency, with considerable social, economic and political
consequences. This is particularly so within multicultural societies where the
indigenous population has often been subjected to centuries of
disenfranchisement, assimilation and other threats. In such situations, allowing
certain groups to have privileges (e.g., fishing rights) not afforded to others is
at once a necessary means of restitution but also highly contentious and
politically charged, especially in the context of unresolved land claims.
What is at stake are not just economic interests but the identity, well-being,
sovereignty and indeed survival of Indigenous peoples and their cultural
traditions. There have been discussions of culture-based rights by scholars and
legal experts at a relatively high level of theorizing and legal analysis (e.g.,
Cowan 2006, 2013; Kapchan 2014; Kuper and commentaries 2003; Strathern
2006). This is part of much broader discussions concerning a suite of related
topics, including race, culture and identity (Brooks 2002; Tallbear 2013), the
legitimacy of traditional knowledge and indigenous research (Irlbacher-Fox
2014; Widdowson and Howard 2008), human rights (Donnely 2013; Goodale
2009) and the more encompassing epistemological debates relating to the
Culture Wars or Science Wars (Boghossian 2005; Kuznar 2008).
Theorizing aside, discussions of indigeneity and indigenous rights often have
very real and irreparable consequences, while also exacerbating Western
stereotypes and potentially supporting racialist perspectives. For example, while
the claim of some Europeans that they are indigenous has merit, it nonetheless
detracts from the situation of Aboriginal peoples in the Americas, Australia or
Africa, who may have much more at stake than political recognition.

To appear in Archaeologies of Us and Them Debating the Ethics and Politics

of Ethnicity and Indigeneity in Archaeology and Heritage Discourse, edited by
Charlotta Hillerdal, Anna Karlstrm, Carl-Gsta Ojala. Routledge.

In this paper I take a pragmatic approach to the intersections of indigeneity with

cultural property and intangible heritage. If descendant groups are denied direct
and meaningful means of engaging in decision making concerning their heritage,
then heritage management policies are ineffective at best and harmful at worst.
My position is based on three points: 1) that access to and control over ones
own heritage is a basic human right essential to identity, well-being and
worldview; 2) that Indigenous peoples in so-called settler countries have
historically been separated from their heritage, experienced little benefit from
heritage-related research and suffered cultural harms and economic loss as a
result; and 3) that community-based heritage initiatives are capable of
challenging colonial structures in the research process without compromising the
integrity of archaeology. My goal here is to discuss the need for a theoretically,
ethically and politically viable approach to heritage research with, for and by
descendant communities.
What follows is a discussion of heritage values and challenges relating to those
three premises. I begin with issues of heritage and human rights, which lead into
a discussion of some of the harm caused by unequal access to or benefits from
heritage. I then shift to community-based initiatives that challenge existing
power structures in archaeology and heritage research. The latter part of this
paper focuses on two approaches community-based heritage practices and the
use of intervention to change heritage policy to illustrate the relevance of and
urgency in addressing issues and concerns relating to colliding cultural values,
inequities in heritage preservation and questions about access to and benefits
from research on and development of indigenous heritage locales.
Heritage as a Human Right
To one degree or another, heritage is important to all peoples everyone has a
cultural legacy worthy of respect and protection. What constitutes heritage
includes (but is not limited to) the objects, places, knowledge, customs,
practices, plants, stories, songs and designs of earlier generations that define or
contribute to a persons or groups identity, history, worldview and well-being.
Heritage is complex, culturally variable and highly nuanced. David Lowenthal
(1996) provides an excellent broad overview; more focused reviews include
Smith 2006, Smith and Akagawa 2009, and Sorensen and Carman 2009.
However, Indigenous peoples disempowered, disenfranchised, colonized or
otherwise dominated by the states that claim jurisdiction over them have
historically had little control over their heritage, including a say in decisions
made over sites and places of great importance to them. Moreover, they
generally experience the least benefit from research conducted on their heritage.
Indeed, all too often their lifeways, traditional knowledge and cultural sites are
viewed as part of the public domain, free for the taking and enjoyment of others
(Brown 2003; Nicholas 2014a; Vaidhyanathan 2005).

In recent years there has been a substantial commitment by some to address

these concerns, with researchers seeking more meaningful inclusion of, and
collaborations with, Indigenous peoples in projects related to their cultural
heritage (e.g., Atlay et al. 2013; Lyons 2013; Pitt Rivers Museum n.d.).
Nonetheless, there remain tremendous challenges to establishing more
respectful, ethical and effective policies to protect Indigenous heritage and
subsequent difficulties arising from the implementation of these practices,
especially when fundamental differences exist between Western and Indigenous
societies over how heritage is perceived or defined. These include different
epistemological regimes and evidentiary standards, the absence of the familiar
dichotomies that comprise the Western worldview and the indivisibility of
tangible and intangible heritage.
Developing ways to include Indigenous peoples in heritage research is more than
an academic exercise, as this approach seeks to address problems faced by real
people on a daily basis. Recognizing, respecting and protecting indigenous
heritage is bound up with challenging questions about sovereignty and
jurisdiction, about social justice and human rights, and about access to and
benefits from ancestral objects, places and knowledge. Indigenous peoples, long
affected by disenfranchisement, loss of language and culture, and fragmentation
of their societies, continue to press for meaningful engagement with those
controlling their affairs.
In response to these challenges, university-based researchers, professional
organizations, government agencies and international organizations such as the
United Nations and the World Intellectual Property Organization are increasingly
being called on to help develop solutions to these challenges and inequities that
exist at international, national and local levels. For its part, the United Nations
has set a broad mandate for acknowledging and protecting Indigenous peoples
through its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Of particular
relevance to heritage is Article 31:
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop
their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural
expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies
and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines,
knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures,
designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They
also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their
intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and
traditional cultural expressions. (Emphasis added; United Nations 2007)
This declaration serves to uphold those rights in theory, but it is another matter
to put this into practice. That task falls within the realm of state, provincial or
federal heritage preservation laws and policies (e.g., King 2013), with some
protection afforded by intellectual property laws (e.g., Christie 1998). Heritage
legislation in settler countries has been thoroughly discussed, with conversation
focused as much on its effectiveness or lack thereof as on its sometimes

conspicuous absence. While acknowledging that the archaeological record is

dominated by the legacy of ancestral Indigenous peoples, most legislation
continues to prioritize scientific evidence over culture-based values. In some
cases, there is unequal protection under the law for indigenous vs. settler
heritage. Additionally, heritage policies in North America and elsewhere are
strongly influenced by economic pressures (Welch and Ferris 2014); protecting
heritage sites may thus pit Indigenous peoples against private landowners and
other interest groups.
The actions that archaeologists and others take are often situated at the nexus of
complex debates over such important topics as open vs. restricted access to
data, and universal access vs. culture-based rights. There are also potential
contradictions to contend with, such as those found in Article 27 of UNESCOs
Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001): Everyone has the right freely
to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share
in scientific advancement and its benefits, and Everyone has the right to the
protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific,
literary or artistic production of which he is the author. What is problematic here
is the apparent presumption of scientific advancement, which has so often
been at odds with community values and the desire to retain control (and
privacy) of heritage matters.
Helaine Silverman and Charles Ruggles (2007: 3) speak to such challenges when
they state:
Heritage is by no means a neutral category of self-definition nor an
inherently positive thing: It is a concept that can promote self-knowledge,
facilitate communication and learning, and guide the stewardship of the
present culture and its historic past. But it can also be a tool for oppression.
For this reason, heritage has an uneasy place in the United Nations call for
universal human rights and it merits examination as an urgent
contemporary problem.
Indeed, it is surprising that anthropologists have only recently begun to focus on
issues of human rights in relation to heritage (Goodale 2009; Wilson 2008;
although, see Wilson 1997). However, there is also considerable opposition to
culture-based rights or privileges (see Widdowson and Howard 2008 for a
Canadian example).
Found at all levels is an apparent tension between Indigenous peoples and the
dominant society, regarding both the protection of the tangible elements of their
heritage in the face of land development and the more fundamental question of
whether access to, and control over, ones own heritage is an inalienable human
right. Caught up in all of this are people who find themselves increasingly
separated from their heritage and all that may be derived from it.
Heritage Loss as Violence

Archaeologists today are increasingly cognizant of the need to more fully engage
with descendant communities in issues pertaining to their heritage. Nonetheless,
there continues to be a significant power imbalance regarding who has access to,
benefits from and controls heritage. Archaeologists, situating themselves as
stewards of the past, have become the gatekeepers of other peoples heritage.
This has consequences for individual well-being, group identity and cultural
sovereignty. A continuing challenge for postcolonial archaeology (Lyons and Rizvi
2010) is therefore identifying and addressing those inequalities affecting
descendant communities both in the practice of archaeology and in the ability to
access and benefit from its tangible and intangible products.
Stewardship policies and practices are also problematic because they are based
largely on Western values (and presumptions), with only limited accommodation
of local heritage values and needs. Often within an indigenous worldview, the
material elements of heritage (artifacts, archaeological sites, places) cannot be
separated from the knowledge, beliefs and stories associated with them;
ancestral beings and supernatural forces may be understood to reside in material
things and places still today (see Table 1). In these cases, a lot more than
economic value or historical and archaeological significance is at stake when
heritage sites are threatened or when traditional objects, images and knowledge
all elements of intellectual property are used in inappropriate and unwelcome
A critical analysis of the situation makes it apparent that a substantial source of
tension has been the unequal power relationship that exists between Indigenous
peoples and archaeologists in settler nations. It is clear that archaeologists have
monopolized the means of knowledge production (not always intentionally) and
benefited from this more than others (Hollowell and Nicholas 2009). Or, they
have been unwilling or unable to give up control of the research process, which
amounts to much the same thing. I do not think it a stretch to view
archaeologists as historically being the bourgeoisie, monopolizing the means of
knowledge production and being the primary beneficiaries, and Indigenous
peoples as the proletariat, still with limited access to the benefits arising from
that knowledge production (although in some contexts today those roles may be
When Burial Grounds are Archaeological Sites
The fact that in settler countries the heritage sites of the colonizers and
colonized may be treated differently reveals unequal power dynamics. In British
Columbia, Canada, burial grounds dating to before 1846 2 fall under the
protection of the Heritage Conservation Act; those after that date are protected
by the Cemeteries Act. The Heritage Act states that a person must not damage,
desecrate or alter a burial place that has historical or archaeological value.

This date reflects the start of British (and later Canadian) sovereignty over
what is now British

There is an implication here that not all burial places have historic or
archaeological value, never mind other values inherent in such places. A critical
point is that, with some exceptions, the act requires interpretation of the value of
such sites, thus raising questions about who decides the value of such burial
places, or what sites are worthy of protection (Nicholas et al. 2015).
Not only is the Heritage Act subject to divergent interpretations, but when
heritage sites require protection in a particular instance, the mode of
preservation may still be inadequate or indeed irresponsible. It is the
government and its representatives that ultimately decide what constitutes
acceptable mitigation when disturbance or destruction of significant heritage
properties is unavoidable. When the majority of heritage sites are those of
Indigenous peoples, preservation practices are often more contentious than
congruent. In the case of a house being built on Grace Islet (Figure 1), a 1-ha
island in coastal British Columbia with 16 recorded burial cairns, construction
was initially allowed to proceed by literally building around several of the cairns
(Nicholas et al. 2015). Thus, while the burial ground remained technically intact,
considerable harm was nonetheless done according to local First Nations. For his
part, the landowner satisfied all requirements of the heritage legislation.
Although construction was eventually stopped, it is greatly disturbing that such a
mitigation plan was ever considered acceptable in the first place.
Was harm done in the Grace Islet case? If so, to whom? And were those harms
acknowledged and recompensed? Based on the terms of the provinces purchase
of the property in early 2015, 3 it was judged that harm had been done to the
landowner. The province of British Columbia paid him $5.45 million, of which
$840,000 was for the property itself, and $4.6 million for losses suffered. It was
reported that
the price tag covers [the landowners] costs over two decades to install
utilities, hire archeologists, architects and other professionals, and to begin
construction of the house, which is partially completed [and] also
compensates for the loss of future enjoyment of the property. (Kines 2015)
In this case (and others like it), the province clearly acknowledged that the owner
did suffer various losses, including future enjoyment. What has been
conspicuously absent, however, is any consideration given to the local First
Nations, not for lost enjoyment, but for the losses suffered from the
disturbance of a historic place they consider sacred or otherwise important.
Heritage Harms as Violence
For many archaeologists, one of the darkest moments in memory was the
destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 until that event

The purchase followed extensive and prolonged protests by First Nations

groups and their supporters and the efforts of environmentalists. What was
disappointing was that the primary rationale for the purchase, at least in public
reporting, was the unique ecological setting of the islet, not the burial ground.

was eclipsed by the far wider destruction of artifacts and heritage sites by ISIS in
2014 and 2015.4 Highlighted in such instances of wanton destruction is the loss
of history and scientific potential, 5 which can be interpreted as violence against
history. However, this raises a more general question: do the types of cultural
harms evident at places like Grace Islet denigration, destruction of heritage
sites, misappropriation constitute a similar form of violence?
The World Health Organization defines violence as
the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against
oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either
results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological
harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.
Without wanting to detract attention from more explicit forms of harm, the loss
of access to, or more obviously, the destruction of heritage sites has significant
adverse effects upon Indigenous peoples for whom those sites are considered
necessary not only to their historical continuity and worldviews but also their
well-being. This is articulated well by a First Nations community member in
British Columbia:
Ruby Peters believed that the disturbance of the ancient burial ground at
Somenos Creek not only offended and disrupted relations with the deceased
but also resulted in physical danger for the living. Only by conversing with
the deceased and using her ritual knowledge could she at least partially
restore the requisite balance of relations between the world of the living
and the world of the dead. (McLay et al. 2008: 155)
When used to describe harms resulting from disturbing heritage sites, violence
is seldom in the vocabulary of archaeologists, except when it involves (in an
abstract way) acts of violence against their (shared worldly) heritage, such as
the Bamiyan Buddhas. But by looking at this through the lens of indigeneity, we
must acknowledge that real harm occurs to people in these situations. As
Kapchan (2014: 4) observes, violence is an abrogation of human rights.
Heritage Protection Through Innovation or Intervention
One important trajectory of change in the realm of heritage has been indigenous
archaeology, defined (in part) as
4 . [accessed March 6,

This is well represented in media reports, such as: ISIS Archaeological
Vandalism Destroys Knowledge and Heritage
( [accessed March 6, 2016]
and ISIS Archaeological Destruction Creates New Dark Age
[accessed March 6, 2016]

an expression of archaeological theory and practice in which the discipline

intersects with Indigenous values, knowledge, practices, ethics, and
sensibilities, and through collaborative and community-originated or
-directed projects, and related critical perspectives. (Nicholas 2008: 1660)
It seeks to 1) make archaeology more representative of, responsible to and
relevant for Indigenous communities; 2) redress real and perceived inequalities
in the practice of archaeology; and 3) inform and broaden the understanding and
interpretation of the archaeological record through the incorporation of
Aboriginal worldviews, histories and science (Atalay 2006; Nicholas 2014b;
Nicholas and Watkins 2014). This is part of a set of efforts to foreground
community heritage needs and preservation goals (Oland et al. 2012; Phillips
and Allen 2010; Smith and Wobst 2005) in ways that relate to (but may remain
distinct from) public archaeology (Skeates et al. 2012), community archaeology
(Marshall 2002), postcolonial archaeology (Lydon and Rizvi 2010) and other such
efforts. As a suite of strategies and goals, indigenous archaeology along with
shifts in research methods aligned to indigenous interests (Smith 2012) is
poised to both complement and challenge archaeology and thus make it more
robust, more encompassing and more representative and relevant.
Indigenous archaeology is not without its critics, however. Robert McGhees 2008
article Aboriginalism and the Problem of Indigenous Archaeology likely
resonates strongly with a large number of archaeologists. 6 The same holds for
corresponding concerns over oral histories (Henge 2009; Mason 2006). Whether
viewed as theoretically bankrupt or an exercise in political correctness, or owing
to unfamiliarity with its premises and goals, indigenous archaeology is seen by
some to threaten the ability of archaeologists to go about their business. This is
especially the case with reburial and repatriation, and other supposed challenges
to conventional understandings of who controls heritage sites and information.
This unease has been mutual. For their part, Indigenous peoples contend that
they do not need archaeology to tell them what they already know through other
means, namely that it is yet another form of colonialism and that they continue
to be excluded from decisions relating to their heritage in a meaningful and
sustained way. What is clear is that, while Indigenous peoples may now be more
familiar with archaeology and increasingly see it as a useful tool, distrust and
inequality remain (Watkins 2011).
Reconciling Inequalities
In Canada, many of these issues are playing out in the context of national efforts
promoting reconciliation with the First Nations, Inuit and Mtis peoples that
together comprise the indigenous population of the country. Reconciliation has
also been a prominent theme elsewhere, especially in Australia. While there has
been much promotion of consultation as a means of accomplishing this
(including in heritage management), such efforts generally have been superficial.

A series of responses was published in the July 2010 issue of American


This is because achieving reconciliation requires fundamentally changing how

things are done by governments, heritage practitioners and researchers, and by
the public regarding respecting and protecting indigenous heritage, especially in
such areas as: legislation and policy regarding heritage sites and values,
university research protocols, free, prior and informed consent, communitydefined heritage goals and benefits of research flowing to communities.
It has proven very difficult to redress some of the inequalities faced by
Indigenous peoples (Nicholas 2014c) because of Western notions of heritage and
the guiding principle of stewardship. This is due to:
a lack of neutrality, with heritage management policies (including notions
of significance) operating from a privileged, largely Western-centric
only limited accommodation of so-called indigenous knowledge, with
little credence given to oral histories, except when it concurs with
archaeological sources (Nicholas and Markey 2014); 7
concerns over relinquishing control, with the majority of archaeologists
reluctant to share, let alone give up, any control over archaeological or
heritage projects and policy development;
a fear of an anything goes non-scientific approach to heritage,
emanating from a presumed postmodern, politically correct stance.
Coupled with calls for greater representation in heritage research by so-called
marginalized peoples has been a promotion of activism (Atalay et al. 2013;
Stottman 2011) and civic engagement (Little and Shackel 2007). This has seen
some considerable success, most often in the form of collaborative or
community-developed research projects (e.g., Atalay 2013; Nicholas 2014b). True
collaborative ventures are not only possible but can incorporate both scientific
and indigenous approaches and values without one compromising the other.
Efforts to address inequalities in protecting indigenous interests can take
different forms. Here I offer two examples. The first involves community-based
heritage research, and the second, the use of an intervention in a situation
where existing heritage legislation is not only ineffective but harmful.

Community-Based Initiatives
Community-based participatory research (CBPR) engages the community fully in
the process and works to ensure they are primary beneficiaries (see Atalay 2013;
Bell and Napoleon 2008; Smith 2012). In recent years, CBPR has made inroads in
archaeology and heritage studies as a way to ensure that the research is
designed to be relevant, respectful and beneficial to involved communities and
other stakeholders.8 An integral aspect of such projects is a commitment to learn
about core local values and concerns through interviews, ethnographic studies

But see the Supreme Court of Canadas 1997 Delgamuukw decision (Canada

and ongoing consultations to aid in defining research goals and designing

effective and culturally appropriate research processes (Hollowell and Nicholas
2009). A growing number of community-based projects exemplify this (e.g.,
Guilfoyle et al. 2009; Guindon 2015; Silliman 2008; Straight et al. 2015).
A larger-scale approach to meeting local needs is through a series of initiatives
facilitated by the Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH)
project.9 IPinCH was an international research collaboration (2008-2016)
exploring the diverse values that underlie attitudes, decisions and actions
relating to heritage, and providing research, knowledge and resources assisting
academic scholars, descendant communities and others in negotiating equitable
terms of heritage research and policies. The team included more than 50
archaeologists, museum and cultural tourism specialists, lawyers, ethicists and
others, along with 25 partner organizations and many associate members and
One major component of the IPinCH project was a series of community-based
studies addressing concerns over intangible and tangible heritage using methods
that foreground local values, needs and sensibilities. In each case, the
community developed the study and has complete control over both the process
and products of the research. These projects addressed a variety of issues and
opportunities, including: preserving local values within cultural tourism,
developing protocols for research on human remains, repatriating information
from museum collections, capturing the history of tribal efforts to preserve
intellectual property and creating tribal policies, procedures and protocols that
protect intellectual property while complying with current historic preservation
laws, developing a cultural knowledge database for recording elders traditional
knowledge in an indigenous methodological and ethical framework, and more.
These studies not only directly aid the community (and potentially other
indigenous groups) but may also help to refine or reformulate theory, practice,
policy and ethics at critical intersections of knowledge, culture and rights.
Three other examples of notable collaborative or community-directed projects
addressing local needs through innovative approaches in different realms are as
for digital archiving Kim Christen and colleagues two community-based
digital archiving and dissemination initiatives: Mukuto, 10 an indigenous
archive and content management tool, developed with the Warumungu
community of Australia; and the Plateau Peoples Web-Portal (Christen

One indicator of greater recognition of this theme are the journals

Collaborative Anthropologies and the Journal of Community Archaeology and
9 [accessed March 6, 2016]
10 [accessed March 6, 2016]


for virtual museums The Reciprocal Research Network:12 a collaborative

research initiative connecting Aboriginal communities to national and
international museums through a virtual museum-type platform. It was
developed by the University of British Columbias Museum of Anthropology,
Musqueam Nation, Sto:lo Nation and Umista Cultural Society;
for websites as cultural hubs the Inuvialuit Pitqusiit Inuuniarutait:
Inuvialuit Living History website 13 incorporates the ideas and information
contributed by Inuvialuit of north-western Canada. The website facilitates
compiling and sharing community knowledge and provides lesson plans for
elementary and high-school students that highlight Inuvialuit traditional
knowledge and the history of the region as pathways for learning.
Such initiatives help to ensure that heritage is protected, that heritage values
continue to flow between generations and that sharing knowledge with outsiders
is done in ways culturally appropriate.
What happens when heritage legislation ignores or is unable to meet the needs
and expectations of Indigenous peoples? In multicultural and settler states, the
challenges associated with the recognition, respect and protection of cultural
heritage can be particularly acute and often a source of conflict with substantial
social, political and economic consequences. Exacerbating this is the reluctance
of archaeologists, heritage managers and others to relinquish some of the
considerable control they have over descendant communities heritage. Effecting
change can thus be a monumental task, given that government bureaucracies
are slow to change without considerable incentive and public support. 14
Earlier in this paper, the controversy at Grace Islet was introduced as an example
of the lack of acknowledgement and protection afforded to Indigenous heritage
sites in this case, a burial ground. This case revealed that significant
differences exist in how Indigenous and non-Indigenous burial sites are valued
and protected, and that heritage legislation, policies and practices are heavily
weighted towards addressing Western needs (e.g., collection of scientific data).
More fundamentally, such culture- and race-based inequities are rooted in
colonial perspectives that have worked to separate Indigenous peoples from their
heritage and all that flows from it.

11 . [accessed March 6,

12 [accessed March 6, 2016]
13 . [accessed March 6, 2016]
This is illustrated by the recent Supreme Court of British Columbias ruling in
2014 that grants Aboriginal title to the Tsilhqotin Nation to a portion of their
traditional territory, and shifts the standard from consultation to consent. . [accessed
March 6, 2016]


In 2014, the IPinCH Project became involved with this case with the hope of
helping to achieve a resolution. Project members first sent an open letter 15 to
provincial authorities and others, pointing to the need to view the local
controversy more broadly, and arguing that the minimal level of protection
offered by British Columbias heritage legislation runs contrary to emerging
trends in Canadian Aboriginal rights law. We noted that the privileging of land
and site alteration over the protection of Aboriginal rights and interests was
inconsistent with the intent of international Indigenous rights and cultural
heritage law, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples. Our intention was to highlight how British Columbias current
legal and policy framework for heritage failed to reflect emerging national and
international norms related to the recognition of and respect for Indigenous legal
and cultural traditions.
Although the letter was acknowledged by provincial representatives, construction
continued on Grace Islet. It was apparent that a stronger intervention was
required. A larger group of IPinCH team members subsequently developed the
Declaration on the Safeguarding of Indigenous Ancestral Burial Grounds as
Sacred Sites and Cultural Landscapes (see Figure 2).16 This document articulated
the growing global consensus around the importance of protecting Indigenous
ancestral burial sites and called on all levels of government, heritage
professionals and others to work together to ensure such sites are not subject to
alteration or damage. It also served to remind non-Indigenous governments in
Canada of their existing legal and ethical obligations with respect to First Nations
sacred sites in which human remains of cultural and spiritual significance are
The declaration was released on 10 December 2014, International Human Rights
Day, with copies sent directly to key provincial officials as well as local
governments, First Nations authorities and conservation groups involved in the
Grace Islet controversy. The declaration has now received endorsements from
such organizations as the Society for American Archaeology, the American
Anthropological Association, the BC Association of Professional Archaeologists,
the International Society of Ethnobiology, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, and
As noted earlier, the Grace Islet case was resolved through the purchase of the
property, and construction was halted to the satisfaction of local First Nations
groups. However, this particular form of resolution has done nothing to change
15 [accessed
March 6,
The declaration, complete with the names of the 27 signatories, and a list of
private individual and organizational endorsements can be found at:
[accessed March 6, 2016]


existing heritage legislation or its application, so it remains only a matter of time

before similar controversies arise, despite the provinces pledge for a full review
of heritage legislation. We believe that this intervention did aid in a settlement
being reached, in part by bringing international attention to the case an
unfortunate but all too familiar situation in which academic voices are privileged
over those of Indigenous peoples.

Archaeology is how we learn what happened in the past, while heritage is that
set of values given to or possessed by objects, places and information derived
from archaeology and other means. We are most familiar with the scientific and
historic meanings ascribed to these, but less so with local values and specific
needs of descendant communities.
Many Indigenous peoples are interested in engaging with the wider world, but on
their own terms and in ways that preserve cultural values and help protect
identity, well-being and worldview. Projects developed in partnership with
Indigenous communities especially those on topics relevant to them enhance,
not limit, the research results, thus providing a deeper understanding of local
heritage values along with equitable benefits sharing derived from cultural
heritage. Indeed, national research funding agencies are now starting to see the
value of collaborative and community-driven initiatives as a means of breaking
away from the traditional research methods that have been successful for
academics, but less so for others. This points to a new era of communityinformed and -oriented heritage research and more effective policies, one that
seeks to move beyond the legacy of scientific colonialism and outdated
Sadly, this optimism is at odds with continuing disputes over heritage sites, such
as Grace Islet. While a Canadian example, it nonetheless exemplifies how little
say some have over ancestral burial grounds and other places of great
significance to them. Until Indigenous peoples and other descendant groups
regain at least a significant degree of control over their own affairs, there will be
no full resolution regarding culture-based rights issues. The challenges are not
small, especially when trying to ensure equality in how, for example, ancestral
remains are treated, while also respecting cultural differences in what are still
not postcolonial contexts. Nonetheless, the examples of innovations and
interventions discussed hopefully contribute incentive to developing more
meaningful dialogue and actions.

I am most grateful to Charlotta Hillerdal, Anna Karlstrm and Carl-Gsta Ojala for
their invitation to participate in the Uppsala University symposium, International
Archaeologies of Us and Them Debating the Ethics and Politics of Ethnicity


and indigeneity in Archaeology and Heritage Discourse. I thank Alexa Walker

and Graham Reynolds for comments on the paper, and Kelly Bannister for
providing the photograph of Grace Islet.

References Cited
Atalay, Sonya. 2006. Indigenous archaeology as decolonizing practice. American
Indian Quarterly 30(3): 280-310.
2012. Community-based archaeology: Research with, by, and for indigenous
and local communities. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Atalay, Sonya, Lee Clauss, Randall McGuire, and John Welch, editors. 2014.
Transforming archaeology: Activist practices and prospects. Walnut Creek, CA:
Left Coast Press.
Bell, Catherine, and Val Napoleon, editors. 2008. First Nations cultural heritage
and law: Cases studies, voices and perspectives. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Boghassian, Paul. 2006. Fear of knowledge: Against relativism and
constructivism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brooks, James F., editor. 2002. Confounding the color line: The Indian-Black
experience in North America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Brown, Michael. 2003. Who owns native culture? Cambridge, MA.: Harvard
University Press.
Canada, Supreme Court. 1998. Aboriginal Title: The Supreme Court of Canada
Decision in Delgamuukw V. British Columbia. URL: [accessed
March 6, 2016]
Christen, Kim. 2015. Tribal archives, traditional knowledge, and local contexts:
Why the s matters. Journal of Western Archives 6(1): article 3. http://digitalcommons [accessed March 6, 2016]
Christie, Gordon. 1998. Aboriginal Rights, Aboriginal Culture, and Protection
(1998). Osgoode Hall Law Journal 36: 447-484.
Cowan, Jane. 2006. Culture and rights after culture and rights. American
Anthropologist 108: 9-24.
2013. Before audit culture: Towards a genealogy of international oversight of
rights. In The gloss of harmony: The politics of policy making in multilateral
organisations. Edited by Birgit Muller, pp. 103-133. London: Pluto Press.
Devy, Ganesh N., Geoffrey V. Davis, and Kalyan K. Chakravarty. 2009.
Indigeneity: Culture and representation. Bangalore: Orient BlackSwan.
Donnelly, Jack. 2013 Universal human rights in theory and practice, 3rd ed.
Cornell, Cornell University Press.


Goodale, Mark, editor. 2009. Human rights: An anthropological reader. Malden,

Guilfoyle, David, Bill Bennell, Wayne Webb, Vernice Gillies, and Jennifer
Strickland. 2009. Integrating natural resource management and indigenous
cultural heritage
A model and case study from south-western Australia. Heritage Management
2(2): 149176.
Guidon, Franois (in collaboration with the Neeposh family). 2015. Technology,
MaterialCulture and the Well-Being of Aboriginal Peoples of Canada. Journal of
Material Culture 20(1): 77-97.
Henge, D. 2009. Impossible to disprove yet impossible to believe: The
unforgiving epistemology of deep-time oral tradition. History in Africa 36: 127234.
Hokowhitu, Brendan, Nathalie Kermoal, Chris Anderson, Anna Petersen, Michael
Reilly, Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez, and Poia Rewi. 2010. Indigenous identity and
resistance: Researching the diversity of knowledge. Dunedin: Otago University
Hollowell, Julie and George P. Nicholas. 2009. Using ethnographic methods to
articulate community-vased conceptions of cultural heritage management. Public
Archaeology 8(2/3): 141160
Irlbacher-Fox, Stephanie. 2014. Traditional knowledge, co-existence and coresistance. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3(3): 145-158.
Kapchan, Deborah.. 2014. Cultural heritage in transit: Intangible rights as human
rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Kines, L. 2015. Province buys disputed Grace Islet for $5.45 million. Times
Colonist February 16, 2015. URL: [accessed March 6, 2016]
King, Thomas F. 2013. Cultural resource laws & practice, 4th ed. Lanham, MD:
AltaMira Press.
Kuper, Adam. 2003. The return of the native. Current Anthropology 44(3): 389402.
Kuznar, Lawrence. 2008. Reclaiming a scientific anthropology, 2nd ed. Lanham,
MD: AltaMira Press.
Little, Barbara, and Paul Shackel. 2007. Archaeology as a tool of civic
engagement. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
Logan, William, Michelle Langfield, and Nic Craith. 2010. Intersecting concepts
and practices. In cultural diversity, heritage and human rights: Intersections in
theory and practice, edited by William Logan, Michelle Langfield, and Nic Craith,
pp. 3-20. London and New York: Routledge.


Lowenthal, David. 1998. The heritage crusade and the spoils of history.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lyons, Jane, and Uzma Rizvi, editors. 2010. Handbook of postcolonial
archaeology. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Lyons, Natasha. 2013. Where the wind blows us: Practicing critical community
archaeology in the Canadian north. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.
McGhee, Robert. 2008. Aboriginalism and the problems of indigenous
archaeology. American Antiquity 73(4): 579-597.
McLay, Eric, Kelly Bannister, Leah Joe, Brian Thom, and George Nicholas. 2008.
Alhut tu tet Sulhweentst Respecting the ancestors: Understanding
Hulquminum heritage laws and concerns for protection of archaeological
heritage. In First Nations cultural heritage and law: Cases studies, voices and
perspectives, edited by Catherine Bell and Val Napoleon, 158202. Vancouver:
UBC Press.
Mason, Ronald J. 2006. Inconstant companions: Archaeology and North American
Indian oral traditions. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
Miller, Bruce G. 2003. Invisible indigenes: The politics of nonrecognition. Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press.
Murray, Tim. 2011. Archaeologists and Indigenous people: A maturing
relationship? Annual Review of Anthropology 40(1): 363-381.
Nicholas, George P. 2008 Native peoples and archaeology (Indigenous
archaeology). The encyclopedia of archaeology, edited by Deborah Pearsall, Vol.
3: 16601669. Oxford: Elsevier.
2014a. Indigenous cultural heritage in the age of technological reproducibility:
Towards a postcolonial ethic of the public domain. In Dynamic fair dealing:
Creating Canadian culture online, edited by Rosemary J. Coombe, Darren
Wershler, and Martin Zeilinger, pp. 213-224. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
2014b. Indigenous archaeology (Archaeology, Indigenous). In Oxford
bibliography of anthropology, edited by John L. Jackson. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
2014c. Reconciling inequalities in archaeological practice and heritage
research. In Transforming archaeology: Activist practices and prospects, edited
by Sonya Atalay, Lee Clauss, Randall McGuire, and John Welch, pp. 133-158.
Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
2014d Why Heritage is Not Just About Things. (TEDx Yellowknife talk).
[accessed March 6, 2016]
Nicholas, George, Brian Egan, Kelly Bannister, and Emily Benson. 2015.
Intervention as a strategy in protecting indigenous cultural heritage. SAA


Archaeological Record 15(4): 4147.

Nicholas, George P., and Nola M. Markey. 2014. Traditional knowledge,
archaeological evidence, and other ways of knowing. In Material culture as
evidence: Best practices and exemplary cases in archaeology, edited by Robert
Chapman and Alison Wylie, pp. 287-307. London and New York: Routledge Press.
Nicholas, George P., and Joe E. Watkins. 2014. Indigenous archaeologies in
archaeological theory. In Global encyclopedia of archaeology, edited by Claire
Smith, pp. 3777-3786. Springer, New York.
Oland, Maxine, Siobhan M. Hart, and Liam Frink, editors. 2012. Decolonizing
indigenous histories: Exploring prehistoric/colonial transitions in archaeology.
Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Phillips, Caroline, and Harry Allen, editors. 2010. Bridging the divide: Indigenous
communities and archaeology into the 21st century. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast
Pitt Rivers Museum. n.d. Kaahsinnooniksi Ao'toksisawooyawa: Reconnections
with Historic Blackfoot Shirts. URL:
[accessed March 6, 2016]
Silverman, Helaine, and D. Fairchild Ruggles. 2007. Cultural heritage and human
rights. In Cultural heritage and human rights, edited by Helaine Silverman and D.
Fairchild Ruggles, pp. 3-29. New York: Springer.
Silliman, Stephen, editor. 2008. Collaborating at the trowels edge: Teaching and
learning in indigenous archaeology. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Robin Skeates, Carol McDavid and John Carman, editors. 2012. The Oxford
handbook of public archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Smith, Claire, and H. Martin Wobst, editors. 2005. Indigenous archaeologies:
Decolonizing theory and practice. New York: Routledge.
Smith, Laurajane. 2006. Uses of heritage. Routledge, Abingdon, UK: Taylor &
Francis Group.
Smith, Laurajane, and Natsuko Akagawa, editors. 2009. Intangible heritage. New
York: Routledge.
Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 2012. Decolonizing methodologies, 2nd ed. London: Zed
Sorensen, Marie Louise, and John Carmen, editors. 2009. Heritage studies:
Methods and approaches. New York: Routledge.
Straight, Bilinda, Paul J. Lane, and Charles E. Hilton. 2015. It was maendelo that
removed them: Disturbing burials and reciprocal knowledge production in a
context of collaborative archaeology. Journal of the Royal Anthropological
Institute 21: 391-418.
Strathern, Marilyn. 2006. Intellectual property and rights: An anthropological
perspective. In Handbook of material culture, edited by Chris Tilley, Webb Keane,


Susanne Kcheler, Mike Rowlands, and Patricia Spyer, pp. 447462. London:
Stottman, M. Jay, editor. 2011. Archaeologists as activists: Can archaeologists
change the world? Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
Tallbear, Kimberly. 2013. Genetic articulations of identity. Social Studies of
Science 43(4) 509533.
United Nations. 2007. Declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. United
Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
les.aspx [accessed March 6, 2016]
United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
2007. Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. URL [accessed March
6, 2016]
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. 2005. The Anarchist in the Coffee House: A Brief
Consideration of Local Culture, the Free Culture Movement, and Prospects for a
Global Public Sphere. Social Science Research Network: [accessed March 6, 2016]
Watkins, Joe. 2011. Indigenous archaeology as complement to, not separate
from, scientific archaeology. Jangwa Pana 10: 46-62.
Welch, John, and Neal Ferris. 2014. We have met the enemy and he is us':
Transforming archaeology through sustainable design. In Transforming
archaeology: Activist practices and prospects, edited by Sonya Atalay, Lee
Clauss, Randall McGuire, and John Welch, pp. 91-114. Walnut Creek, CA: Left
Coast Press.
Widdowson, Frances, and Albert Howard. 2008 Disrobing the Aboriginal industry:
The deception behind indigenous cultural preservation. Montreal and Kingston:
McGill-Queens University Press.
Wilson, Richard A. 2008. Human rights. In A companion to the anthropology of
politics, edited by David Nugent and Joan Vincent, pp. 231-247. New York: WilleyBlackwell.
Wilson, Richard A. (editor) 1997. Human Rights, Culture & Context:
Anthropological Perspectives. London: Pluto Press.


Table 1: Why heritage matters (more to some than to others).

1) Heritage is not just about things. Ancient objects are important
touchstones of history, and they reveal much of scientific importance.
However, no artifact or archaeological site has any meaning without the
intangible values brought to it.
2) Heritage is not limited to the past. For some Indigenous peoples, there
is no division between culture and nature, or between the natural and
supernatural realms, and notions of past and present may be folded
together. This means that ancestral beings and other forces are part of this
3) Heritage permeates the fabric of indigenous societies. Heritage as a
concept really does not exist in many Indigenous societies since it is entwined
with all other facets of peoples lives. Thus, the loss of an ancestral site is not
just a loss of history but a separation from places important to them, and a
threat to well-being and a way of life.
4) Heritage is largely intangible. It reflects a societys engagement with the
world through its material culture but especially through its collective
knowledge, experiences, traditions and origin stories that both shape and
reflect what people do.
5) Heritage research may have unintended consequences. Research on
archaeological materials, including ancient DNA studies, can yield great
insights into ancient peoples lives, including population movements in the
past. But that information can also challenge a communitys origin beliefs,
threaten an individuals identity or complicate land claims.
6) Heritage needs to be managed by the heritage holders. All peoples
need to have access to and be able to make decisions about their own
heritage in whatever form it takes. How can outsiders make decisions about
someone elses heritage when they are unaware of, or do not understand,
local values, needs and consequences?




Figure 1. Construction underway on Grace Islet, an ancestral burial

ground, 2015 (photo courtesy of Kelly Bannister).


Figure 2: Declaration on the Safeguarding of Indigenous Ancestral Burial Grounds as Sacred Sites and Cultural

( ).